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July 16, 2019

6/13/2019 7:28:00 AM
City Council takes no immediate action on investigations
LaPorte offers perspective on public works director
Heather Schaefer and Jamie Taylor
of the River News

The status quo remains, for now, at Rhinelander City Hall as alderpersons review reports generated by the von Briesen law firm related to complaints lodged by public works employees alleging a hostile work environment as well as the "declaration of no confidence" presented by a group of City Hall employees to the council March 11 related to the conduct of city administrator Daniel Guild.

The council spent over an hour in executive session Monday evening conferring with attorneys Jim Macy and Hector De La Mora regarding the complaints.

The panel emerged at approximately 9:21 p.m. to announce no action was taken.

In open session, Mayor Chris Frederickson made the following announcement: "No action is being taken by council at this time on the issues covered by the closed session."

After the meeting was adjourned, Frederickson told the River News the council members were encouraged to carefully review the information provided.

"The reports are filed. They are confidential at this point. Council members are encouraged to look them over in detail," he said.

Public works director Tim Kingman, who was placed on "non-disciplinary" administrative leave June 3, remains on leave, Frederickson added.

(Earlier in the evening, the council reviewed a set of invoices from the von Briesen firm totaling over $15,000 for work completed in March and April. City council president George Kirby argued Frederickson and Guild should pay those bills using their own funds because they were generated prior to June 1, when the city's expanded agreement with the firm went into effect. Alderpersons Steve Sauer and David Holt, among others, argued questions over the hiring of the firm have been resolved and that a separate agreement covering the investigatory work was not necessary, given the city's previous and ongoing relationship with the firm. Ultimately, the council voted 4-3, with one member absent, to pay the legal bills. A full story on the debate over the bills will be published in a future edition of the River News.

Controversy over workplace culture issues has dominated city politics for months now as various employees and alderpersons have come forward to express frustration and displeasure with working conditions.

On March 11, city clerk Val Foley, assistant clerk Mary Stoll, utility clerk Beth Mannikko, then-administrative assistant Stephanie Rajnicek and Kingman presented the council with a declaration of no confidence in Guild. (Rajnicek later resigned, citing the tension at City Hall).

"This no-confidence declaration is in Daniel Guild's ability to lead the City of Rhinelander as Chief Administrative Officer," the declaration reads.

The signatories then listed what they consider to be Guild's shortcomings as administrator, including creating an "atmosphere of intimidation and fear of retribution."

"The City Administration leadership has become more authoritarian in which we have little choice on what to do, or what to say," the declaration states.

After receiving the declaration, alderperson Dawn Rog moved to suspend Guild but the council deadlocked and Mayor Chris Frederickson broke the tie with a "no" vote.

On April 22, several public works department employees took to the podium at a council meeting to plead with the alderpersons to take seriously their reports that they have been subjected to a hostile work environment.

Tom Froehlich, a 27-year veteran of the street department, was the first to speak. He told the alderpersons he has been on the receiving end of retaliation and harassment in the workplace over a period of several years.

"Sadly, it doesn't end with me," Froehlich said. "I have also witnessed incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying behavior and retaliation against some of my friends and past co-workers."

Froehlich said the workers expected their concerns to be addressed two years ago when the City Council started talking about reports of dissension in public works, and were disappointed when city leadership did not take action.

"We ask you, the Rhinelander City Council, to put your differences aside and work to resolve the issues that have plagued our department for the last four years so we can get back to providing the services that the taxpayers expect and deserve," Froehlich said in closing.

The last worker to speak, Jennifer Berger, wept as she read her statement.

An 18-year veteran of the street department, Berger described the past couple of years as the worst in her working career. She urged the council to finally do something about problems that have been festering for years.

"Please stop ignoring our concerns, we are your employees, friends, neighbors and public servants," Berger said. "Meet with us, hear our story, and open yourself to our concerns."

Finally, on May 13, a group of approximately 15 employees presented a "declaration of full confidence" in Guild.

In the statement, the signatories indicated they have appreciated Guild's willingness to sit down and talk with employees as well his efforts to keep them informed about city issues.

"As employees we feel Mr. Guild is moving forward on checking into why the Rhinelander city seemed to be a hostile work environment..." the statement reads.

While his name was not mentioned by any of the public works employees who spoke to the council April 22, Kingman was placed on what has been characterized as "non-disciplinary" leave June 3.

According to Frederickson, the decision to place Kingman on leave came at the recommendation of attorney Macy.

"(Macy) suggested, for all parties involved - it wasn't disciplinary - that we put him (Kingman) on administrative leave," Frederickson said. "It was to protect Tim as much as protect any employees involved."

While he has not spoken in detail about the mayor's decision to place him on leave, Kingman has said he believes the action was retaliatory in nature and a response to his decision to speak out about Guild's conduct.

Before Monday's closed session, during the public comment portion of the meeting, Pa LaPorte of Downtown Rhinelander Inc. offered the perspective of her group on Kingman's job performance.

"We are very concerned and confused regarding the direction the city appears to be headed with regard to some city employees," LaPorte said. "It appears that many valuable people who have been keeping the city functioning are now being targeted and threatened with losing their employment. It's our understanding that Mr. Kingman is under that attack."

"DRI has had an outstanding relationship with Kingman," she continued, noting that many DRI projects involve the public works department and Kingman has been their "go to" person on several occasions.

"We don't want to see our relationship with him end," she said, noting that no one associated with group has had any issue working with Kingman. "I can say on behalf of DRI, not one person has had a negative comment about Kingman's job performance or work ethic."

"Good people are hard to come by these days," she continued, noting that the environment at City Hall has become "toxic". As others have, she also used the word "cancer" to describe the atmosphere at City Hall.

"Mr. Kingman and Val Foley and all the other people who signed the 'no confidence' letter are not part of the cancer," she said. "The perception of the business community is not a positive one for this group that's supposed to be the leadership of our city. You're here to serve us and we hope you do."

Rhinelander police sergeant Kurt Helke also shared his thoughts on the Kingman matter during public comment.

"While some people might have had a positive relationship with the person, the evidence is clear that there's been a destructive, 'cancer' environment created by the working conditions in the public works department," he said.

Also Monday, alderman Lee Emmer spoke out about the manner in which alderpersons have been treating each other during meetings. He decried what he called a "loss of decorum" at the May meeting, when a council member was "attacked" over a perceived lack of computer skills and when Holt "blurted" that he would not participate in a closed session with Rog, who was absent from this week's meeting, due to concerns about her behavior.

"I don't like to see the total loss of decorum we saw at the last meeting," Emmer said.

Holt indicated he would like to discuss the creation of bylaws to govern council behavior.

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